Back To Fitness

As lockdown is easing in the UK, many horse owners will start to look at bringing their horses back into work and increasing their fitness.

How long this takes depends on your fitness goal and your horse’s current level of fitness, age and previous injuries.

If your horse has been turned away in a sizeable field with companions it will be surprising how much fitness he has retained walking around the field and playing with friends. However, if your horse has an old injury or is stabled overnight with individual turnout they won’t have retained as much fitness.

Whilst not riding, some owners have continued long reining or lunging their horse, so will have a slight advantage over the furloughed horses.

Something to consider though, is your fitness as a rider. This has probably deteriorated with staying at home as well as doing less equine activities.

One of my client’s horses has had seven weeks off, but he’s now coming back into work as he lives at home and I don’t need to see anyone when I go to ride. We need to consider his mental well-being as well as his physical health. He is looking plump, but is also bored only being in his field. Well, that’s what I like to think as he trotted over to me when I appeared with his saddle today!

To use him as an example, he has some fitness from being in a field 24/7, so I started with a generous half hour walk around the village, with no terrain. He returned home with a little sweat on his girth area and had obviously worked without stressing his body. This will steadily increase on hackd, in duration and incorporate terrain over the next couple of weeks before short periods of trot are introduced. As with the walk, the trot periods will increase in duration, frequency and include terrain.

Depending on how we’re getting on with his fitness, the ground and lockdown in general, I’ll look at starting some canter work in week four.

This horse has no previous injuries for me to worry about, and we aren’t in a rush to get him fit for a competition deadline, so I will take it steadily with him. Aiming for him to come back from each ride slightly sweaty, and having increased his pulse and respiration rate during the ride.

Schooling for short periods can be introduced early on, to provide variety to the work. If you jump, then you’ll want to introduce trot polework when the trot is established, and canter poles and jumping once the canter work has been introduced, always monitoring how well your horse is coping with the exercise.

I think it’s most important to listen to the horse when fittening them; assess their recovery after work, keep a close eye on their body and behaviour for signs of fatigue, and for any signs of soreness or injury afterwards. Even if you have a fitness deadline, such as a competition, it is better not to rush the fittening, and plateau for a while if necessary until your horse’s body is managing with the current workload.

Getting Fit

I’ve started riding this large Shire cross a couple of times a week and it’s made me think about fitness and getting different types of horses fit.

I ride him for an hour and tend to start with fifteen minutes in the school of trot and canter, before embarking on a hack which in this weather is fairly steady. 

However, after each ride he is dripping in sweat and breathing fairly heavily, despite the fact that the last fifteen minutes of the ride are a steady walk. Today we got back and I dismounted to untack and his head sank to the floor, so his chin was resting on the ground. I laughed at him, sure that he wasn’t that exhausted, and felt it would’ve been easier to untack him if I’d sat on the floor.

Anyway, it’s the first time I’ve ridden a really cold blooded horse, and the way they are built means they need their fitness built up differently. 

I tried to remember my GCSE P.E. lessons and the body types there are. An ectomorph is a tall, thin person with lots of fast twitch fibres, which makes them good at sprinting and other fast exercise. The thoroughbreds are the ectomorphs of the horse world. A mesomorph is a person who can put on muscle very easily, so the weight lifters of the world. I’m not a hundred percent sure which breed of horse fits this – any suggestions welcome!

Finally, you have the endomorph, which I remembered as the dumpy physique (the letter d is in both words). Endomorphs have lots of slow twitch fibres which makes them good at stamina related exercise.

I think that draught horses, or cold bloods, are the equine equivalent of the endomorph. After all, they evolved with the primary job of being able to pull heavy objects, such as ploughs, for long periods, but at a steady pace. This means that they have a large proportion of slow twitch fibres, and subsequently are quite hard to get fit. Also, even when fit they will still have quite a round physique, unlike the streamlined fit racehorse.

Most riding horses will have more fast twitch than slow twitch fibres, so progressively increasing the duration of work in mixed gaits will rapidly get them fitter. Whereas this Shire cross that I’m riding needs lots of slow steady work to build his fitness up; so an hour of walking is more beneficial to him than half an hour of schooling or trot work, or a turn on the gallops.

Of course, the trot and canter needs to be included in his workouts, but with plenty of breaks and a very slow increase in duration so that his body doesn’t become overly tired and fatigued, otherwise he risks injuring himself.

I had noticed that this horse wasn’t quite as sweaty today as last week, so hopefully we’re on the right track and soon his workload can increase slightly. It is interesting to work with a horse so much bigger and heavier than most riding horses, and it made me think about allowances you need to make (soft ground may be fine for the 15hh thoroughbred to canter on, but a heavier horse will find it much more of a strain) with draught horses when developing an exercise program for them.


Different Fitnesses

I hack a horse once a week for his owner. She much prefers the schooling side of things, but wants her horse to have some downtime in the form of his weekly hack.

I started riding this horse in January, and was told that he struggles to walk down inclines due to his side bone, so I was to be careful not to choose too steep a downhills, to let him take his time and I . This is fine by me, and the first few hacks I planned my routes carefully, making sure I picked a couple of routes with the steeper uphill, and shallower downhill.

As I`ve got to know this horse I haven`t thought as much about our hacking routes, they come naturally. But last week I suddenly realised that, as we walked through the woods, that we had just walked down a slope that only a month ago he pottered down. This made me reflect upon this horse and his way of going on hacks.

Compared to our first couple of months of hacking, when the weather was against us, and he wasn`t hacking fit; this horse is now more surefooted, both up and downhills, and can trot or canter for longer periods, particularly on slight uphills. 

This was more noticeable today when I went down to the gallops. We trotted up a track in the field, and didn`t run out of steam half way up, and then we positively marched down the next field, confident and surefooted. Again, it wasn`t a steep hill, and we took it at an angle, but I was pleased with how he tackled it. Then we had a little gallop along the gallops, and although we slowed to a medium canter after 100m he still comfortably continued until the end, when a month ago he would have faded halfway along. 

A horse can be fit for a specific job; so a racehorse is fit for galloping very fast for short periods, but would be useless at endurance. Likewise, a dressage horse can work at a steady pace on a soft, flat arena, but will struggle to jump a course of showjumps. For the horse I hack this is a similar case; he is fit to do an hours schooling, but is slowly gaining fitness in other areas; such as surefootedness, and stamina. Hopefully by improving the overall fitness of this horse will help his work in the school, as well as giving him a change of scenery and some down time.

Hacking is really useful for improving a horse`s surefootedness as they have to navigate different terrain, and working up and down hills helps improve their stamina. Getting out and about also helps desensitise horses and make them confident in tackling the world, as well as mentally stimulating them.

Regardless, this horse thoroughly enjoys his hacks out and is always perfectly behaved; he is great in traffic, waits for me to let him canter, pops over the little log we come across and is generally good company.